Books Read in 2021 7. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

Genre: Music, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of points of view.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2020

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Utopia Avenue are a band put together by Levon Frankland. They are an unlikely bunch, mixing folk, psychedelic, rock and jazz influences. The novel follows their rise to fame and how they deal with their personal issues.

Time on shelf: Not very long. I’ve read four Mitchell novels before so I was excited to read this one.

Well, this was a disappointment. From very early on, it was clear that this was not going to be the usual Mitchell tour de force that I normally enjoy so much. The first character we are introduced to is Dean Moss, a gullible, uneducated bass player whose life is falling apart. Cue entrance of Levon Frankland who is putting a band together. They then proceed to pull together the other members of the band, all of whom are at crisis points in their musical careers. So far so predictable. The band suffer the usual setbacks in the start of their career – bad gigs, sinking singles and so on. Until, of course, things start to go well.

There isn’t much in the way of overarching story here. There is the story of the band and each of the members have a personal crisis. Dean had a troubled childhood with an abusive father, Elf Holloway thinks she may be gay but is unable to accept it (at least at first) and Jasper de Zoet has mental health issues. However, none of these things really have any momentum. There is no pace. In one chapter (the only one he gets) drummer, Griff is in a car crash which kills his brother. He doesn’t want to stay in the band. And then suddenly he is back in the band again. Because he gets no other chapters, we do not know his motivation. (Incidentally, Griff was a badly drawn stereotype of a Yorkshireman whose one trait was to say fook all the time. It made me question whether Mitchell had ever met someone from the North.)

The most interesting – and the most Mitchell like – of these storylines is Jasper’s. He has an interloper in his head who wants control of his body and briefly gains it. This is more like the Mitchell we all know and love and is the sole reason this didn’t get one star. Jasper is cured by horology, one of Mitchell’s trademark ideas. This is the only part of the story that isn’t straightforwardly realistic. I could have stood a bit more of it.

It isn’t only the plot that is problematic, however. It is the constant cameos of dead pop stars. Okay, so a band in London in the 1960s would meet some other pop stars, of course but these appearances are so frequent and are so blandly written that they quickly become tedious. Mitchell seems to think that the insertion of the name is enough and so does little to flesh out Brian Jones, Keith Moon or David Bowie (to name but three). They get there full name every time they are mentioned as if the reader is going to be as tickled by their appearance as Mitchell clearly is. I was familiar with some of these people but not all of them. A little more work at characterisation might have been helpful.

The one time Mitchell does expand his powers of description, it is quite successful. In a chapter set in the Chelsea Hotel, Elf fails to recognise Leonard Cohen so Mitchell has to describe him properly so the reader can work it out. Leonard comes across as wittily flirtatious, urbane and charming. Much as you might imagine really. By comparison, the other cameos felt lazy and self-indulgent. In fact, the one chapter from Levon’s point of view seems to have been included solely so that Mitchell could include an extended (and completely cringey) cameo from Francis Bacon which made me question which came first, the story or the star turns.

So overall, a disappointing read which saw me begin to anticipate the cameos rather than what might happen in the plot. A chapter in the Chelsea Hotel, I guess we’ll be meeting Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin then. It was tedious and didn’t feel like it had been written by a writer as good as Mitchell. What a shame.

Top Ten Tuesday – Jobs I wish I had

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together. Each Tuesday, a new list is posted.

Today’s list is jobs I wish I had. I’ve gone more for jobs I find interesting or are in some way integral to the plot.

  1. Complicity – Iain Banks (1993) – Job: Journalist. How far would you go to get the scoop of a lifetime? How responsible is a journalist for the trouble caused by the stories he writes? This twisty thriller analyses these questions. (See also Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre)
  2. The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes (2016) – Job: Musician. An unconventional fictionalised biography of the musician, Dmitri Shostakovich set around three key events in his life. It looks at the effects of totalitarianism on creativity and is one of my favourites of Barnes’ novels. (See also Espedair Street by Iain Banks)
  3. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – Henry Farrell (1960) – Job: Actor. A bit of a potboiler, this one but great nonetheless. It’s impossible to read without imagining Bette Davis and Joan Crawford but it’s none the worse for that. Ridiculously enjoyable. (see also – The Understudy by David Nicholls)
  4. A Disaffection – James Kelman (1989) – Job: teacher. Okay so this is my job so not especially interesting as such but it does sum up nicely some of the issues with the educational process. It also contains one of my favourite openings – ‘Patrick Doyle was a teacher. Gradually he had become sickened by it.’ (See also – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks)
  5. The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern (2011) Job: Magician. I love a bit of magic realism and this book of two duelling magicians supplies it in spades. It’s not fast paced by any stretch but beautifully written and compelling just the same. (See also Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke)
  6. Mort and Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett (1987 and 1991) Job: Death. Not an obvious job maybe but Mort is death’s apprentice and in Reaper Man Death is sort of retired so it would seem to count. Also, Death is easily my favourite Pratchett character with his attempts to understand humanity and his horse called Binky. (See also – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak)
  7. Rebus Series – Ian Rankin 1978-date) Job: Policeman. I love John Rebus. He is a policeman who does not see the harm in breaking the rules if necessary. He has his own personal morality that often does not match that of his superiors. Definitely my favourite cop series. (See also Shetland books by Ann Cleeves, Jackson Brodie series by Kate Atkinson.)
  8. The Interpretation of Murder – Jed Rubenfeld (2006) Job: psychoanalyst. Based around Freud’s first trip to America in 1909, this is a murder mystery with a psychoanalyst for a detective. Lots of Freudian analysis obviously. Clever and satisfying.
  9. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Patrick Suskind (1985) Job: perfumer. Baptiste Grenouille is born with an astonishing sense of smell. He is apprenticed to a perfumer and learns the tricks of the trade but he wants more than that and starts to try to pin down the smells of everyday Paris. This builds to one of the most dramatic conclusions of any novel I’ve read.
  10. Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas (2013) Job: Swimmer. Daniel Kelly is training to be on Australia’s national swimming team. He is very good but his sense of shame at being working class and being gay cause him to lose the thing he wants the most.

Books Read in 2021 6. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway.

Genre: Classics, Masculinity, Adventure

Narrative Style: Third person, Chronological

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1952

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, an aged fisherman who is having the worst run of luck of his life. It is eighty four days since he has caught a fish. On the eighty fifth day, he catches a huge marlin which pulls him out to sea.

Time on shelf: A long time. I’m not sure where this one came from. I think it may have been my husband’s and so it arrived when we moved in together some 20+ years ago. I have made one attempt to read this – in about 2005 – as it was one the GCSE syllabus – but I failed to finish it. As it is not a long book, this should give you some indication of how much I was enjoying it.

This was one of the first books my husband mentioned when he suggested that he would come up with a reading list for me. He has read it and he really enjoyed it. He wasn’t impressed that I didn’t finish it last time I decided to read it early in the year so that it was out of the way.

So what to say about this book. My main problem is that I wasn’t interested in the story. Partly, I suppose, because the plot of the novel is so well known there wasn’t much tension. I knew he wasn’t going to get the fish home. So there was very little tension. Not that Hemingway can be blamed for this.

I quite enjoyed Hemingway’s pared down style. There is nothing excessive about it. nothing extraneous to the plot. So I think I would like to read another Hemingway novel even though this story didn’t particularly grab me. I also enjoyed the relationship between Santiago and the fish he has caught. He is fully aware of the fish’s power and beauty and as such, treats it with a level of respect you might reserve for another human.

I understand that this is an allegory. The sea represents life. The battle with the fish represents life’s ultimate futility. And so on. Very clever and all but it didn’t make it a more interesting story for me.

Next Steps – Publishing quandries.

Well, I’m finally ready to publish Choose Yr Future. It’s taken about six years but I’m happy with it – with the storyline, the characters, the style. I don’t think there is anything else I can do with it. I have sent things off to publishers when the writing is still in too raw a state before and it didn’t get me anywhere but I’m fairly certain that this is a lot more polished.

In fact, I had started to prepare it to be self-published via Amazon like I did with Shattered Reflections. However, there are a number of things that are making me pause and think about other avenues.

The first – and probably the most important – reason for not self-publishing is the fact that I proved to be really bad at marketing last time so I didn’t sell many books. I’m quite a shy person, at least in terms of putting myself forward for things. Not a good thing when you are trying to promote yourself. I don’t really have the time either. Not to do it properly. And I don’t want to sacrifice the spare time I do have after work to marketing. That’s when I write normally. It helps me relax. Marketing is the opposite of relaxing and not something I want to do when I’ve already been at work all day. Of course, the dream would be not to have to work but that would come after successfully marketing my book, not before.

Then there is the fact that a lot of self-published books are genre fiction. Not that there is anything wrong with that but while Choose Yr Future is a dystopia, it doesn’t really fit completely in that genre and it is more literary than popular fiction. On top of this, I am broke so I can’t afford a cover designer or an editor. The more and more I think about it, the more I think that traditional publishing is a better idea.

So I’m once again considering more traditional routes. I’ve been pouring over The Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook trying to decide whether I need an agent or am going to go with a publishing house who take unsolicited manuscripts. And then there are all the Indie publishers who have sprung up over the last few years. Of course, a lot can be dismissed immediately as not quite the right thing but it is a time consuming nonetheless.

Maybe I’m a snob (not maybe, not really) but I must admit I’d like the kudos of being published by a recognised publisher, to be able to say someone thought this worthy of publication. Other than me, of course.

We’ll see what happens. The whole process takes a long time so I may run out of patience and find myself back at Amazon. Of course, there are a lot more places for self publishing now as well and I’d welcome any advice from anyone who has done it recently.

Top Ten Tuesday – Mardi Gras Colours

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This weeks Top Ten is purple, yellow and green book covers in honour of Mardi Gras. I don’t really take much notice of book covers and I wasn’t sure what to go for so I decided to make it books with those colours in the titles or author’s name.

  1. Half a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006) This was an interesting read about the struggle to establish the state of Nigeria. It is both an epic and personal history of a country.
  2. Come Unto These Yellow Sands – Josh Lanyon (2011) This was my first Josh Lanyon. A romantic thriller with an ex bad boy professor and his policeman boyfriend trying to solve the mystery of the dead father of one of the professor’s students. Very enjoyable.
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) This is a chilling tale of one woman’s descent into madness, made worse by her husband’s controlling behaviour. It may be over 100 years old but it’s themes are sadly just as relevant today.
  4. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003) This was the first Adichie I read and I loved it. The brutal world of Kambili is poignantly described and this is a very emotional read.
  5. The Color Purple – Alice Walker (1982) I first read this in university some thirty years and it has stayed with me. I’ve never read anything else quite like it before or since.
  6. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury (1962) (Set in Green Town) I love a fantasy story set at a carnival. They are so creepy anyway. Bradbury doesn’t disappoint with this fable about what happens when wishes come true.
  7. Turtles all the way down – John Green (2017) I do enjoy Green’s novels – and this one in particular was fun and quirky but that is my main issue. I always feel they are trying a bit hard. I’m sure if I was fifteen I’d appreciate them more.
  8. Brighton Rock – Graham Greene (1938) This is my favourite of Greene’s novel. With gang warfare, murder and the strange and malign Pinkie, I found I couldn’t put it down.
  9. Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (2007) This is probably the most straightforward of Mitchell’s novel – at least of the ones I’ve read and I think that is why I love it so much. There are still fantasy elements but the main narrative thrust is the coming of age of the narrator, Jason.
  10. Anne of Green Gables – L. M/ Montgomery (1908) This book was a big influence on me growing up. I really identified with Anne who is always getting into trouble because of her temper or saying the wrong thing. Like Jo from Little Women, she helped me realise that not all girls were feminine and quiet.

Books Read in 2021 5. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (Contains Spoilers)

Genre: LGBT, Bildungsroman, romance

Narrative Style: Third Person, Moves from present day to childhood

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2018

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Fifty something Eustace is facing a number of potential changes to his life. He is beginning a new romance and has just discovered he has to have treatment for cancer. Time in hospital gives him time to think about the past and his childhood in particular.

Time on shelf: I bought this at the same time as The Testaments with birthday vouchers in November. I’ve read four other of Gale’s novels and loved them all particularly A Place Called Winter. This was never going to sit on the shelf for long.

This was an absolute joy to read. Gale’s style flows beautifully and the characters, right down to the smallest, are well rounded and convincing. The plot trots along at a nice pace and I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I could have carried on.

The novel starts with Eustace in his fifties and just beginning a new romance albeit online rather than in real life. The exchanges between Eustace and Theo, a younger man in the army are tender and sweet. Eustace is cautious having recently had been involved in a difficult relationship but he starts to let his defences down. Then he discovers that he has cancer and he has to go into hospital to be treated with a large dose of radiotherapy. In fact, he has to stay in a lead lined room while it destroys his tumour. This gives Eustace the chance to think back over his childhood and past relationships.

Eustace is a bit of an odd child who doesn’t really fit in at home – where his parents run an old people’s home – or at school where he stands apart from the noise and chaos of the other boys. As he grows, he starts to understand some of the things that make him different – his developing knowledge of his sexuality and also his love of music.

The descriptions of Eustace learning to play the cello are a particular joy. Gale clearly has a real love for music and for playing an instrument. His cello teacher, Carla Gold, is unconventional and opens Eustace’s eyes to a whole new way of living. Especially when he starts to visit her at her flat in Bristol which she shares with a gay couple. He comments that he isn’t just getting cello lessons but also lessons in being gay as well.

Carla not only changes Eustace’s life but also that of his mother. Eustace watches her come out of her shell when she starts to go out for lunch and spend more time with Carla. Eustace never really understands the exact nature of this relationship and it is never made explicit but it is clear that his mother has fallen in love with Carla.

I felt a bit sorry for Eustace’s mother. His father is old-fashioned and they are ill-matched. When Carla appears, she falls head over heels for her. However, she is not allowed any real joy as when she and Carla run away together, their car crashes and his mother ends up in a coma. When she comes round, she has had a religious experience and she slowly transforms into the villain of the piece.

All this is seen through Eustace’s eyes and as he doesn’t completely understand what has happened, the reader has to piece it together. At the same time, we also see his first experiences with other boys, something else he doesn’t always fully understand. Gale moves easily between comedy and sadness. His descriptions of Eustace’s experiences are heartfelt and authentic.

Eustace’s childhood builds to a dramatic conclusion and then we move back to the present day and his return home, ready for his new romance and the first real life meeting with Theo. I could have happily read more about this relationship but it was a good place to stop, on such a hopeful note. Any further and we’d be into the reality of whether the cancer treatment has worked and whether or not his relationship will actually work. Instead, we are left with the pair of them desperate to go to bed but unable because Eustace is still radioactive. A lovely ending to a lovely book.

Top Ten Tuesday – Valentine’s Day / Love

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week’s topic is love – in honour of Valentine’s Day. I must admit I groaned when I saw it. I’m sure my husband would agree that I am not a romantic person. I do not read romance very often. I read Normal People last year and unlike almost everyone else I’ve spoken to about it, didn’t like it very much. I had a go at reading a Cecelia Ahern a few years ago but found that tedious. (How to Fall in Love for anyone who is interested.) Similarly, classics such as Pride and Prejudice or A Room with a View do not rank among my favourites. So I was very tempted to skip a week. However, I decided to have a look at Goodreads and see if I could find ten books that counted as romance and here they are.

Top Ten Romance Novels from the Shelves of a Unromantic Soul.

  1. The Only Story – Julian Barnes (2018) I love Barnes. He is one of my favourite writers. This is the story of Paul who never quite recovers (and never really understands) his first love. As ever with Barnes, the reader is required to read between the lines to get the whole story. See also: Talking it Over and Love Etc.
  2. Possession – A. S. Byatt (1990) I need something more than romance to really love a book and here you have the uncovering of the past through the correspondence of two Victorian poets. Byatt’s prose is clever without being difficult. Very enjoyable.
  3. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)– This is one of the only classic romances that I do actually like and could imagine re-reading. The depiction of the ‘Jazz Age’ is beautifully done. Also the tragedy of it is quite appealing.
  4. The Fault in our Stars – John Green (2012) Okay, this is pretty much a straightforward romance but the writing is lively and the tragedy of it is hard to resist. Green’s style can be a bit annoying and I always wish I was a sixteen year old reading so I could appreciate it less cynically but overall a good read. See also: Looking for Alaska, another unconventional teen romance.
  5. High Fidelity – Nick Hornby (1995) To my mind, this is Hornby’s best novel but that may because I’m a big music fan. I also live with a man who is fond of making lists. Very enjoyable as long as you don’t take it too seriously.
  6. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) More unrequited love than actual romance, this really touched me when I read it last year. I found the inability of Stephens to see what was under his nose quite heartbreaking.
  7. Fatal Shadows – Josh Lanyon (2000) I loved this series. More romantic suspense than straightforward romance, the relationship between Adrien and Jake is as important as the crime fighting element. Also nice subversion of the tropes of detective fiction. See also: Come Unto These Yellow Sands and Snowball in Hell.
  8. The Dreyfuss Affair: A Love Story (1992) – Peter Lefcourt A tale of two baseball players who fall in love and the scandal that ensues when they are caught in the act. There are a lot of different viewpoints and hypocritical attitudes are shown. Plenty of baseball as well.
  9. Atonement – Ian McEwan (2001) I do have issues with the ending of this book – which I won’t disclose because major spoiler – but other than that, it is a very good read. Of course, there is the war to distract from love which certainly made it more interesting for me.
  10. The Understudy – David Nicholls (2005) I’m not a massive Nicholls fan but this book annoyed me the least of the three that I have read. It was funny, Stephen was relatable – even if some characters are caricatures. Another one not to be taken too seriously.

Books Read in 2021 – 4. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Genre: African-American, Masculinity, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person Omniscient Narrator. Moves between 1960s and 2010s.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2019

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Archeologists find a secret graveyard behind an old reform school. They soon realise that they have the bones of many boys. The story then moves to tell the story of Elwood Curtis, a boy who is sent to the Nickel School for Boys for the sheer bad luck of hitchhiking and being picked up by a black man in a stolen pick up. Life for all boys at Nickel is hard but it is considerably worse for the black boys as Elwood is soon to discover.

Time on shelf: Another fairly recent purchase. As lockdown has seen me unable to potter around second hand book shops like I would normally do, I’ve been getting my book buying kicks from Amazon for my kindle. This has seen me buy a lot more recent novels than I would normally.

This is a raw angry book that never lets up. The prose is pared down and details are given in an almost factual manner. It is a tragic story but also one of hope as we are given some post-Nickel story for one of the boys. It isn’t merely an account of the abuses that Elwood and the boys face at Nickel but is also about why it seems that for all the progress made, we are still seeing horrific racist abuses on the news today.

The novel begins with the modern day archeologists finding the secret graveyard at the back of Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida. This is based on the finds at the Dozier School for Boys n 2014, also in Florida. The fatality count from the digs at Dozier has reached eighty but could easily be much much higher. While this is clearly horrific, Whitehead gives the tragedy a very human face.

The action then moves to the life of Elwood Curtis, in Jim Crow era Florida. Elwood is a serious, sensible boy who listens to Martin Luther King’s speeches and works in the kitchen at the same hotel as his grandmother. There seems to be a gap between what King says in his speeches and what Elwood feels in his life. His parents left him with her when he was six. It is the small details of Elwood’s history that are particularly painful. One of his grandfathers died in jail after a white women accused him of not getting out of the way on the street, the other was killed in a bar brawl with some white men over who was next on the pool table. His father had been in the army but when he came home, he found white men lynching black men in uniform so he and Elwood’s mother runaway, leaving Elwood without a word. Because these details are passed on in such a matter of fact way, you know that these are not facts that are unique to Elwood’s life but common to many.

Elwood is aiming high. He starts to go to protests, inspired by a new teacher at his high school. He works in a neighbourhood shop but refuses to let other boys shoplift. (This earns him a beating.) On the morning he is arrested, he is trying to make his way to college where it has been arranged that he will take some classes. He waits for a black driver and is sat in the passenger seat when the police stop them for being in a stolen car.

The rest of the novel deals with the brutality of Nickel. The school is terrible to all the boys but the black boys fair worse than the white. So many of them, like Elwood, have no parents, there is no one to care should they disappear. Elwood learns early on the horrors of perceived disobedience when he is taken to the Ice Cream Factory and beaten brutally. This is what keeps the boys in line – the threat of violence. There is also sexual abuse. Whitehead doesn’t go into details. He doesn’t need to. The mention of Lover’s Lane is horror enough.

And there are deaths and disappearances, for example when one of the boys, Griff,, the champion of the black dorms, put up to fight against the best white boy. He is asked to take a fall in the third by the supervisor who has bet on the match. When he doesn’t – he claimed to have muddled what round it was – he quickly disappeared. Supposedly he has run away but, of course, we know this is not the turth. Griff has been a bully, an unpleasant character but no one deserves his fate.

One of the things that Whitehead portrays very well is the friendships that develop between some of the boys – particularly between Elwood and Turner who get to do some work off the grounds – usually labouring in various ways for important white people, presumably to keep them on side so they don’t investigate Nickel too closely. The friendship with Turner is the one positive thing to come out of Nickel.

We are also given Elwood’s life in the future. He has managed to set up his own business. He is doing well – within a certain definition of doing well. But he can’t quite move beyond Nickel in his mind. And having your own removal company comes nowhere near the future that Elwood should have had. Through this, Whitehead shows us the continuing effect of trauma and the way it stops lives in their tracks.

At the end of the novel, Elwood finally agrees to meet with other Nickel boys, something he has always refused to do. He has things he needs to tell, and there are some twists which I don’t want to reveal but which I would never have seen coming. Like the bodies being removed from the ground, Elwood needs to bring some things out into the open from the deeper reaches of his mind. Similarly, Whitehead suggests, we as a society need to look at these traumatic events head on and deal with them. Maybe then we can stop repeated these terrible, traumatic patterns.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books written before I was born

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week’s Top Ten is 10 books written before I was born – either that you have read or on your TBR. I have decided to list 10 books that I have read. I was born in 1972 so I started with the sixties and worked backwards. I tried to make it a varied list – both in time and in genre. I could easily have picked 10 science fiction books. Writing this list has made me want to read some of these again.

  1. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (1868) I first read this when I was about twelve. My mam gave me her copy from when she was a child and it always felt a bit special to be reading it. Jo is still one of my favourite literary characters and was a huge influence on me as a young tomboy.
  2. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov. (1967) I first read this in the early nineties. It was one of the first books I read at university. Bulgakov rewrites Faust and the story of Judas as well as accurately depicting Russian life in the 1930s. This is my favourite novel which surprises me every time I reread it.
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) I read this at university as well. It’s a disturbing tale which describes the mental breakdown of the narrator when she is forced to rest and not allowed to write or work. Her mental state deteriorates and she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper in the room where is staying. One of the first feminist classics I read.
  4. Diary of a Madman and other stories – Nikolai Gogol (1835) The best stories in this collection are probably the title story which highlights the mental disintegration of a petty official who is struggling for the attention of the woman he loves and The Nose where a colonel wakes one morning without his nose. Later, he finds that his nose has achieved higher rank than him. Excellent satire.
  5. The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith (1955) This was quite a recent read – it had been on my TBR list for quite a long time. A very enjoyable thriller although it was impossible not to imagine Jude Law and Matt Damon as the two leads.
  6. A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood (1964) This is my favourite Isherwood novel. A very moving story about a gay man, George, trying to come to terms with the death of his partner. The action takes place over the course of a single day and we get to see George’s emotional struggles.
  7. Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes (1959) This is a surprisingly emotional read considering it is essentially science fiction. Charlie, a mentally disabled young man, and Algernon, a mouse are given a operation that allows them to become extremely intelligent. This allows Charlie to see exactly how badly people treated him before. Then Algernon’s intelligence starts to deteriorate and we see the tragedy of Charlie doing the same.
  8. The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger (1951) This is another of my favourite books. I’ve read it a couple of times and I’ve taught it as a GCSE text to very nonplussed teenagers. I could reread this book over and over and not get bored.
  9. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut (1969) Another science fiction classic here. Also quite an emotional read. Vonnegut takes us from the bombing of Dresden to the story of Billy Pilgrim who has come unstuck in time. Funny, satirical and anti-war, this is an excellent read.
  10. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (1890) One of the best of the gothic novels that I’ve read. Another rewriting of the Faust legend, Dorian wishes for eternal youth, while his portrait grows old and ugly. A beautifully written moral tale.

Books Read in 2021 3. Autumn – Ali Smith

Genre: Literary fiction.

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of points of view. Non linear.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: It’s 2016. The UK has just voted to leave the EU. Daniel is 101 years old and lying asleep in a care home bed. Elisabeth, who was his next door neighbour when she was a teenager, visits him. The novels shows Daniel’s past and Elizabeth’s present.

Time on shelf: About a year. I bought it because I was curious to read a novel that was such a quick response to Brexit.

I’m genuinely not sure what to make of this novel. On the one hand, it is a realistic rendering of Elisabeth’s life after Brexit. It also gives some details of Elisabeth’s and Daniel’s conversations. On the other, it is an account of Daniel’s memories and dreams that are often absurd and non linear. I found it hard to pull these two very different styles together.

The novel begins with a dream like chapter where Daniel believes that he has died. He is naked and his body returns to its younger state and he seems to be in some sort of woodland with some other naked people. It isn’t made clear what is happening. The action then switches to Elisabeth who is trying to renew her passport and has opted to have the post office check it before she sends it off. This leads to a frustrating and very funny episode where Elisabeth’s photos, and consequently her whole head, are deemed wrong.

The whole novel shifts around like this and there are also chapters dealing with Christine Keeler and the artist Pauline Boty who Elisabeth writes about for her dissertation. It is a bit disorientating and pretty far from a traditional narrative. Not that this is a problem necessarily but it didn’t seem to add up to much.

I’m guessing it’s about time and the different ways we experience it. Daniel’s dreams are as real as any of Elisabeth’s experiences. He sleeps – the care home assistants say that he is near to death – and who can say that his sense of time is less accurate that Elisabeth’s as she sits reading to him. But again, I found it hard to see the overall point that Smith was trying to make or what pulled the whole thing together.

Maybe you need to read the whole series for it to completely make sense but after being so nonplussed with this one, I can’t imagine I will bother.